Rio encore: It’s the Paralympics

The excitement of Team GB returning home to a euphoric welcome is beginning to fade, the endless rounds of chat and ‘show-us-your-medal(s)’ interviews with our highest achieving athletes are petering out, and the warm national glow of unprecedented Olympic success is staring to cool off. But if you’re already missing that buzz, don’t fret. It’s set to kick off again tomorrow, 7th September with the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

London 2012 marked a turning point for the Paralympics. Viewing figures went through the roof and the exploits and achievements of the worlds Paralympic athletes became as talked about in the living rooms, offices and pubs of London as the Olympic Games were the previous month. The fizz about the event was as big, but the wonder and admiration at the achievements of less-able athletes was perhaps even greater. London’s games might have been a turning point, but Rio will mark the 15th edition of the Summer Paralympics – it’s been around quite a bit longer than most of us would have guessed – so here’s our look at the history of the other of Earth’s 4-yearly global sporting extravaganzas…

Award of Victory

The very first ‘official’ Paralympics took place in Rome in 1960. They were actually the 9th edition of what was – for the most part – called the ‘Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games’ which were first organised in 1948 – to coincide with the first Post-war Olympics to which London played host. They were founded by Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttman – an eminent German Neurosurgeon who had fled Nazi Germany to England at the outbreak for World War II. He asked by the British Government to establish the National Spinal Injuries at Stoke Mandeville in 1943 and 5 years later established the games to involve WWII veterans who had sustained spinal injuries during the conflict. Very similar in fact in concept to the modern day Invictus Games.

The early Mandeville Games were as significant for medical science as they were for the morale and self esteem of the competitors and their families. The British Team were naturally ahead on treatment of paraplegia, but physicians from the other teams were encouraged to learn from the effects of the games on their athletes. Guttman even put together an education programme for the doctors of visiting teams – one example being advancing the treatment of pressure sores suffered by athletes as a consequence of their athletic exertions.

The first ‘International’ games took place in the early 1950s when the Dutch fielded a team from the Military Rehabilitation Centre at Aardenburg. The games began to establish a reputation and 18 teams participated in the 1956 edition, with all 5 continents represented in 1957. Unlike the Olympics they were initially an annual event, but from that landmark 1960 Olympic year, shared locations and venues with their able-bodied counterpart. The International Olympic Committee awarded the games the Fearnley Cup in 1956 – an award that recognised the outstanding merit of a sports club in the Olympic Ideal. It is thought to be the first award of a significant honour to a disability organisation anywhere in the world.

Having been ‘recognised’ by the International Olympic Committee through the Fearnley Cup, the 1960 games are retrospectively viewed as the first true Paralymics. But one major way the Paralympics differ from the Olympics is that the International Paralympics Committee is also the governing body for many of the competitions – codifying the rules and categories for assessment of disability impairment.

The 1960 games featured 8 sports chosen because of their suitability competitors with spinal injuries: IPC governed Athletics and Swimming, Archery, Dartchery (a combination of Darts and Archery), Snooker,  Table tennis, Wheelchair Fencing and Wheelchair Basketball. Britain’s first Paralympic Gold was won in Rome in the Archery by Margaret Maughan. Here she is talking about her experience…

As Margaret explains – athletes often competed in more than one sport. It was largely due to financial constraints, as the Paralympic games were not as well financed as the Olympics. 1964 saw the Paralympics follow the Tokyo summer Olympiad, but in 1968 the finances were not there to follow up the Olympics in Mexico. Tel Aviv stepped in and 1968 became an event that did not more the Olympics and use the same facilities. Intercontinental travel presented athletes with a whole new set of challenges as the infrastructure was far less sophisticated than today.

The 1970s saw some controversy. The International Stoke Mandeville Games Association and the International Sports Organisation for the Disabled merged and started using title of ‘Olympiad for the Physically Disabled’. Despite their awarding the Fearnley Cup in the ’50’s this irritated the International Olympic Committee. Guttman died in 1980, and the decade would see some consolidation of the various liability sports governing bodies under the moniker the International Co-ordination Committee of World Sports Organisations for the Disabled. It wasn’t until Seoul ’88 that the term Paralympics was brought in to use and the International Paralympic Committee formed as recently as 1989.

Unfortunately the financial challenges facing the Paralympic Community haven’t gone away, and have made news headlines in recent weeks. So whilst we’re not expecting Rio 2016 to quite be the well resourced extravaganza that the Olympics was, it will still be something to marvel at. Bring it on, we say.


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